50 years since the great miners´ strike

December 11, 2019
Miners in strike, outside the old City Hall in Kiruna
Five thousand miners´ in Malmfälten went on strike for 57 days to achieve better working conditions.

It started as a spontaneous protest. On 9 December 1969, 35 workers in Svappavaara stopped work and staged a sit-in at the truck shop as the morning shift was due to start. The next day workers went on strike in Kiruna, followed a day later by workers in Malmberget. By now nearly 5,000 workers had gone on a wildcat strike.

There was widespread discontent with the harsh conditions at the mine, and with how the miners were viewed. LKAB had doubled production in ten years and made large profits. Despite the fair wage policy adopted by the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO), which sought to close the pay gap in society, miners’ wages had not increased to a similar extent. In order to further rationalise the business, an American time-and-motion study system had been introduced – UMS – which had been used in the American car industry. Every element of work was time-measured and evaluated. The system came to be called “without food soon” or “ultramodern slavery”.

Monthly pay instead of piecework pay

The strikers’ demand was monthly pay instead of piecework pay. The miners wanted to abolish the “monitoring of work and reporting upwards” by foremen. Overtime pay also had to improve. The strikers wanted to handle the negotiations with LKAB themselves, but the company refused. LO and LKAB together tried to stop the strike, and the union was subject to bitter criticism for running the company’s errands. The miners won sympathy throughout radical Sweden. Churches in Norrbotten organised a collection for the strikers, and contributions poured in from all over the country, as well as from abroad. In total, the great miners’ strike brought in between SEK 5 million and SEK 6 million for the strike fund. Several Swedish artists donated works of art to the fund.

Promised regular negotiations

In the new year, the strikers and the union came to a compromise. A 27-man delegation was formed with 21 representatives from the strikers and 6 from the mining union’s sections. The elected head of the delegation was not a union representative, but one of the strike leaders – Ture Rantatalo from Kiruna.

At the end of January 1970, LKAB’s CEO, Arne S. Lundberg, travelled to Kiruna for the first time during the strike. At a mass meeting, he promised a better work environment and regular negotiations. But he also demanded that the strikers return to work. At a mass meeting on 31 January, the workers voted in favour of continuing the strike. The negotiating delegation held its own vote, which ended in a stalemate of 12-12. The head of the delegation, Ture Rantatalo, unwillingly had to decide the matter. He voted to return to work. There were now two conflicting calls to the workers, that of the mass meeting and that of the negotiating delegation. At a final mass meeting, Ture urged the strikers to return to the mine. He left the podium in tears.

57 days of strike

On 4 February, the strikers returned to their workplaces – after 57 days. As a result, negotiations could also begin. Working conditions were gradually improved, and piecework pay and UMS disappeared. Cooperation improved. The great miners’ strike also became a symbol of the working climate and would ultimately have an impact on Sweden’s entire labour market legislation. There was significant smouldering discontent in Sweden, and in the wake of the great miners’ strike, a series of wildcat strikes broke out. As a result, LO initiated a series of new labour laws, such as the Employment Protection Act, the Co-Determination Act, the Workers’ Protection Act, the Work Environment Act and the Trade Union Representatives Act.